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Converting your Recipes to Gluten Free

The Science of Baking - Understanding how to convert to gluten free - A Free From Life

Last week, I wrote about how ingredients work together in baking, particularly the importance of gluten. This week, I’m looking at how you can convert your favourite recipes to make them gluten free, what to add to mimic the structure of gluten and using other ingredients for adding flavour and texture.

How to convert recipes to gluten free - A Free From Life

What sort of flour should I use?

There are so many gluten free flours to choose from, particularly if you look in specialist health shops. Some you will prefer the taste of to others, but for baking, you need to choose flour according to its protein content. As with wheat flour, the higher the protein content of the gluten free flour, the stronger the overall structure of the finished product. In that sense, you can think of the proteins in gluten free flours in much the same way.

  • Nut flours like almond or cashew add a mild sweetness and of course, a nutty taste and are versatile enough to be used in most baked goods as a substitute for flour. You can buy them in two forms – as ground (milled) nuts or as flour. The flour version is finer (usually made with blanched nuts, skin removed) and some varieties are fat-reduced.
  • Coconut flour is also slightly sweet tasting but mild overall. This flour is very absorbent, however, meaning that it is necessary to add more liquid to a recipe when using this flour. A 1:1 ratio of flour to liquid is recommended.
  • White rice flour is a low protein flour that provides a crumbly texture, therefore is useful in pastries or shortbreads. Some people (myself included) do not like the gritty taste of white rice flour when used in yeast breads and other similar products.
  • Sorghum flour (sometimes referred to as Juwar flour) is made from a cereal grain. It has a similar taste to wheat flour and is high in protein (10g per 100g), making it ideal for use in bread, biscuits and cakes.
  • Brown rice flour is made from unhulled rice grains. It has a mild flavour and adds crunch to baked goods, so use in combination with other flours to avoid grittiness. It has a protein content of 7.5g per 100g.
  • Corn flour is made from ground corn, so it is yellow in colour. Not to be mistaken with corn starch, which is white (and pure starch, no protein), you may also see it referred to as corn meal. Corn flour has 7g protein per 100g and is often used to make corn bread, tortillas and pasta.
  • Buckwheat flour has a strong odour and taste. It is made from the buckwheat plant, which is a close relation of rhubarb. Buckwheat flour has 16.4g protein per 100g and is often used for making pancakes.
  • Quinoa flour is made from an ancient cereal grain. It has a strong flavour and aroma and is high in protein (14.2g per 100g), making it ideal for use in bread making.
  • Teff flour is made from ground grains of the ancient grass, Fragostis tef, native to Ethiopia. Red Teff has a rich red/brown colour, so use sparingly unless you want a pink-tinged loaf. The protein content of Teff flour is 11g per 100g and it is useful for making bread, pancakes or wraps.
  • Amaranth flour is made from the dried and ground seeds of the amaranth plant (a herb). It is similar to polenta in texture and has a strong earthy and grassy taste when used in baked goods. Protein content is 16.2g per 100g.
  • Gram flour is made from ground chickpeas. Any flours made from beans tend to give strong beany flavour, making it a preferred choice for savoury dishes, including savoury pancakes and flat breads. Protein content is 12.8g per 100g.
  • Soya flour is made from ground soya beans and has a high protein content (around 35g per 100g). It is yellow in colour, with a strong flavour and odour.
  • Millett flour (also known as Bajri flour) has 10g of protein per 100g. It is pale in colour and produces a soft crumb. Millett can result in a crumbly texture if too much is used, however.
  • Sweet rice flour has excellent binding properties because it is so sticky. It is often used in Asian cooking and may also be referred to as sticky or glutinous rice flour. With a mild taste, it is suitable for most uses, but use sparingly and in combination with other flours. Protein content is 6g per 100g.

Most gluten free flours have a recipe on the back of the packet. This is helpful, but don’t feel as though it is the only thing you can use the flour for. Experiment with different combinations of any flour. There are no rules and no restrictions as to what gluten free flour you choose and what you attempt to make with it. What is best though, is to combine flours in order to give a mix of different protein contents and flavours.

A huge mistake I made when I started out making gluten free bread was to think that I could throw all the ingredients in to the bread maker and let it do its job. What resulted was a badly mixed and uneven loaf that even the birds turned down.

Tips for successful gluten free baking

– Use a combination of high protein flours for breads, pies and pizza bases and lower protein flours (combined with starches) for cakes and cookies etc. Mix the flours and starches well before adding dry ingredients (with so many colours and textures of gluten free flours, this step is really important).

– The golden rule of thumb is a ratio of 70:30 protein to starch, going up to 50:50 for cakes. Why add starch to your recipe, if the flour already contains it? Starch is important for both structure and texture and it combines with the proteins in the flour to tenderise the finished product.  Starch is often added to gluten free recipes because the dough takes on more water, compared with wheat dough and this can weaken the protein structure. Adding starch helps to reinforce the structure and it also helps to hold water and keep the product moist. Common starches used in gluten free baking include arrowroot, cornstarch, tapioca starch (sometimes referred to as tapioca flour) and potato starch.

– Gluten free ‘doughs’ should be wetter and stickier than their wheat containing counterparts. For bread, look for a texture similar to an over sticky dough, not as runny as a cake batter, but not something that you would be able to knead. You don’t have to knead a gluten free dough anyway. This step is necessary for developing the gluten, so you can avoid it. What you can do is use a mixer with a dough hook and aim to incorporate as much air as you can.

– If you use a bread maker, you may have noticed that on an ordinary programme, the machine will allow the dough to rest and rise then will mix it again before allowing it to rest and rise one more time prior to baking. This ‘knocking back’ phase helps to further develop the gluten as well as redistributing the yeast and air pockets. Without the gluten present, you only have one chance for your dough to rise, so under no circumstances do you want to ruin the structure by a second kneading stage. If you don’t have a gluten free programme on your bread machine, choose a quick programme instead.

– Add half a teaspoon of vinegar to help preserve your bread. This also adds to the overall flavour.

– You need more leavening to help your cakes and breads rise. Add around 25% more baking powder/soda and/or yeast.

– Experiment with different liquids, to add flavour and texture. This could include replacing some of the water with yoghurt or buttermilk, to give a fluffier product. You could also try adding fruit or vegetable purees, to give sweetness and moisture (works well in brownies). These also add pectin, to help bind the product.

– Add an extra egg to the recipe and try using carbonated water to put more air into your product.

– Increase the flavour by 10%, so for example, extra vanilla essence. You can also add more flavour by using ingredients like nut milk, honey or coffee.

– Gums are often used in gluten free baking. They help to bind the product in a similar way to the starch and the gluten, by forming a stretchy web when mixed with water. If you use a combination of flours and starches in your recipe, gums may not be necessary, but here is an overview of what is available to try:

  • Xanthan gum – made from corn. Only 1-2 teaspoons are required in a recipe. Too much can lead to a heavy or slimy product.
  • Guar gum – made from a legume. This is a very powerful thickening agent, so again only a small amount is required.
  • Ground golden flaxseed – use 2 teaspoons for every half teaspoon of xantham or guar gum, mixed with boiling water to form a gel.
  • Ground chia seeds – use in the same way as flaxseeds.
  • Gelatine – can be used to help make dough more pliable.
  • Agar agar – vegan alternative to gelatine. This product is made from seaweed and is high in fibre, therefore must be used sparingly to avoid a soggy product. Around 1 teaspoon for every 100ml is recommended.

Don’t forget to make a note of what you use so that you remember for the next time.
Have you converted your favourite recipes to gluten free? How did it go?


The Science of Baking – Understanding How to Convert to Gluten Free

The Science of Baking - Understanding how to convert to gluten free - A Free From Life

My journey to learn how to bake gluten and dairy free (successfully) is ongoing. For every winning recipe, there are around five disasters, but that’s all part of the fun. The key to success is understanding what you are dealing with and how the baking process works. For me, this is about going back a few years to when I worked as a food technologist for a research company. I spent most of my time on product development of, guess what, BREAD. You could say I baked bread for a living!

I understood the importance of each ingredient in bread and the role that each of these play in structure, texture and taste. Put it another way, I know how important gluten is for your traditional loaf, so when you take it out of the equation, you really do have your work cut out to get something that compares.

Having said that it is not impossible to achieve similar results using alternative ingredients, just as long as you understand how these individual ingredients contribute to the overall structure, texture and taste, so that you can substitute them in the right way.

Oh the irony of spending all that time working towards baking the perfect loaf of bread, when here I am (quite a few) years later trying to do the same but on a whole other level. What I’d like to do though, is take you through the baking process to show you how traditional ingredients work together. By understanding this, you can begin to see how you might make substitutions in order to achieve similar results.

What are the main ingredients used in baking?
Most baked goods contain some or all of the following:
Flour, sugar, fat, eggs, liquid, leavening agents and salt


Wheat structure - A Free From Life

The structure of flour is around 10% protein and 70%starch (the rest is fats and enzymes). A baker would choose a high protein flour for bread making (around 12-14%) and a lower protein flour for cakes (8-10%). The reason for this is that the main protein of wheat flour is gluten (70-80% in fact) and it is important for structure (you need your loaf to be robust but you don’t want a tough, chewy piece of cake!).

Gluten consists of two proteins – glutenin and gliadin and when mixed with water it forms a stretchy web. Gluten is able to stretch like elastic and then move back towards its original shape. This allows a wheat dough to expand and rise whilst retaining its original shape. Gluten is the scaffolding of the loaf and it stops a cake from collapsing.

Starch granules in the flour also help to form the structure of baked goods. When the granules absorb water, they swell. Starch also helps to tenderise the crumb of the finished product, by mixing with the gluten network and thereby limiting the development of the gluten (stops it from getting too brittle). Both gluten and starch play a role in delaying the staling of the baked goods, by holding in moisture.

Sugar also plays a role in limiting gluten development, by attracting moisture that would otherwise be absorbed by the gluten. Sugar retains moisture, which adds to the overall texture and taste of the finished product. It also reacts with the proteins in the flour and this contributes to the overall browning, to give a baked good that lovely golden colour.

Adding fat to a mix is important for improving texture and for preventing staling. Fats will shorten a dough i.e. weaken its structure, resulting in a more tender or flaky product. They do this by coating the gliadin and glutenin so that they can’t bind as easily. When sugar is present, the crystals cut tiny holes in to the fat and these become surrounded by starch and gluten. This traps air and when baked it helps increase the volume.

Eggs are important for structure in baked goods. When cooked, the proteins in the eggs set to help stabilise the product. Beating eggs traps air and on cooking, the air bubbles expand to help the product rise. Egg whites in particular form a foam that traps air and can be used to make fluffy light products such as soufflés.

Leavening agents
Leavening agents help a baked product to rise. Baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, is mildly alkaline (pH 8.2) and is often used in a recipe that contains acidic ingredients such as lemon juice, buttermilk or vinegar. The baking soda reacts with the acids to produce carbon dioxide and acts as a neutraliser of the mixture. This affects the final texture and taste of the baked product.

Baking powder is a mixture of baking soda (which is alkaline) and an acid compound. Once added to liquid, the two react to produce carbon dioxide. Baking powder helps give a fluffy and light texture to the baked product, however, if you add too much, the batter or dough can over expand, weakening the overall structure (think collapsed cake).

Yeast is a living, single cell organism. It feeds on sugar and as it reproduces, it releases carbon dioxide. A by-product of this reaction is alcohol, which adds flavour to the finished product.
The carbon dioxide produced by the leavening agents becomes trapped in tiny air bubbles (made possible by the addition of the other ingredients). When baked, the air in these bubbles expands and this is how the product is able to rise.

Salt adds flavour and it controls the growth of yeast so that it doesn’t grow too fast and overstretch the dough. Salt also acts to strengthen the bonds of the gluten network.

You can see that together, the ingredients of a baked good all have a role to play in the texture, flavour and shape of the finished product. They are all important. The question is then, how can you achieve the same success without gluten?

Gluten free flours tend to be heavier than wheat flours. They also absorb more moisture. What this means for baking is that you can’t substitute a wheat flour for a gluten free alternative in a recipe in a like for like ratio. Gluten free flours differ to each other in texture and flavour and no one flour mimics the effects of wheat flour. What food scientists have discovered, though, is that by combining different gluten free flours and starches, it is possible to achieve similar, if not better results.

Next time, I will discuss the different types of gluten free flours you can use and how to work with them for successful baking.


A Word or Two about Spelt

Spelt bread -

Any ideas what the following list of ingredients is from?

Water, tapioca starch, potato starch, vegetable oil, wholegrain maize flour, egg white powder, yeast, cellulose gum, concentrated fruit juice, dextrose, rice bran, cornflour, sugar beet fibre.

Would you believe me if I told you it was the ingredients of a shop-bought gluten free loaf? And that isn’t the whole list either.

Ever since discovering that my son is intolerant to both wheat and dairy, I have had to resort to buying the gluten free, wheat free and dairy free bread that is available in the supermarket. But looking at the ingredients list horrified me and so I knew that the only option left was to make my own.

Well finally I bought a bread maker, which has a gluten free programme and was so excited when it arrived at the weekend (yes, it is amazing what I get excited about these days). In the meantime I have been doing some investigating, looking at different options and I have found an alternative to wheat that my son can tolerate (because he is not sensitive to gluten, he does not technically need to be gluten free, but the majority of wheat free options naturally are).

The grain is Spelt, an ancient grain, which was the staple of the poor until modern farming took over in the 20th century. Although classed as a member of the wheat family, spelt is a genetically different species, remaining unchanged by genetic modification, cross-breeding or any other form of hybridisation. Spelt fell out of favour to its cousin, wheat, due to the ease with which wheat could be mass produced. The tough outer husk of the spelt grains requires an extra step in the processing stage in order to remove it. This made it a more expensive and less viable option to grow.

Spelt is seeing a resurgence in popularity. Some people who are intolerant to modern wheat find that they can tolerate spelt. The higher level of protein in spelt, which is molecularly more brittle and water soluble than the protein in wheat, is possibly why it can be more easily digested. Unfortunately spelt is not a gluten free grain, so is not suitable for Coeliacs. But for my son it is a blessing that he is able to eat spelt, as it is a tasty alternative to wheat and one that we can all enjoy. The gluten in this grain allows it to be substituted for normal wheat flour in order to make a ‘normal’ loaf. And guess what? I made my first loaf in the new bread maker yesterday (and it didn’t require the gluten free option either). Here it is:

Spelt bread

It looks pretty rustic, but it tastes good and better still, look at the ingredients list:

Spelt flour, yeast, sugar, butter (sunflower spread, in our case), water.

That’s more like it, isn’t it?


Gluten Free Flour – Spotlight on Millet

Gluten free flour - millet -

Millet is a collective term for a number of small, seeded grains of the Poaceaoe Grass family. Thought to have been cultivated from as early as 8300 BC, this drought-resistant crop is the sixth most important grain in the world.

The main types of millet grown are Pearl, Foxtail, Proso and Finger, with India, Africa and China being the largest producers.

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Gluten Free Flour – Spotlight on Teff Flour

Teff is a cultivated grain of the ancient grass, Fragostis tef, native to Ethiopia since around 4000BC. This hardy and versatile food source produces tiny seeds (less than a millimetre in diameter).

Grown in remote parts of Ethiopia and Eritrea, Teff thrives in all climates, including both water logged soils and droughts. It grows quickly and just one handful of Teff seeds is enough to sow a whole field. The grain is resistant to other common cereal crop diseases and it cooks quickly, therefore requiring less fuel.

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